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The Stormont Parliament building, where the Northern Ireland Assembly sits. Alamy Stock Photo
VOICES

Emma DeSouza Running in the Assembly elections was an education - Northern Ireland is changing

Emma DeSouza ran in the recent Stormont elections – she didn’t win but she shares her thoughts on it all.

LAST WEEK’S ASSEMBLY election has been heralded as historic, with Northern Ireland earning its first-ever nationalist First Minister.

But the real story here is that of the wholly metamorphosing Northern Ireland, the demonstrably nuanced Northern Ireland and the steady bloom of the middle-ground that showed no sign of tapering off.

Having just staked my flag atop the near-insurmountable summit of running as an independent candidate in Northern Ireland’s largest and most hotly contested constituency, I’ve come away with a whole new perspective on the shifting political ground we now find ourselves traversing.

‘Green or orange’

From day one, it’s been clear that the prevailing narrative that people in the North can be divided to fit neatly into two boxes of either “green or orange” is both desperately and deliberately detached from reality.

Within the hundreds of conversations I shared with voters throughout my campaign, existed rich nuance and diversity, and virtually none of the talking points parroted by the political leaders historically responsible for the status quo.

This level of disillusionment invariably leads to a downturn in voter participation. The average turnout last week was 63 per cent, and areas such as Fermanagh and South Tyrone, West Tyrone and Foyle all saw their vote draw stymied by persistent underinvestment and deprivation, all culminating in an even lower turnout than the 2017 election.

Having the opportunity to offer a progressive alternative to voters, unbound from historical connotations and free from party political affiliation was a huge motivator in my decision to run, and the knowledge that the mere offering of an Independent on the ballot encouraged some of the most systemically neglected voters to enter polling stations – some for the first time in their lives – was enormously rewarding.

However, what persists is a larger and more challenging barrier to greater participation; How do you encourage people to engage in a process that has let them down so consistently and for so long?

Another major issue that only became evident to me through the process of running is the lack of understanding surrounding the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. This was clear, not only from the ticks, x’s, lines, and squiggles I witnessed on many of the ballots I was tasked with tallying at the count centre but also from the conversations I shared with prospective voters at the doors when specifically discussing the STV voting system.

Transfers ultimately determined the fate of most seats and solidified many Alliance gains including North Belfast, South Antrim, and Upper Bann. The STV system is, at its heart, a ranking system; If your preferred candidate is eliminated, the system ensures that your vote still counts.

If nothing else, there would be a solid case for mandatory education on voting in schools, and all parties should be clearly outlining the benefits of voting down the ballot – not just voting for them.

Elections are full-on

Elections are a marathon with a tyre around your waist and heavy leg weights. From leafleting to canvassing to putting up posters and promptly taking them down again, it is six gruelling weeks where you put your mind and body through what feels like a contact sport.

As Independents invariably lack the resources and volunteers their party-political opponents will avail of, the additional effort required to run an even marginally effective campaign is, comparatively, gargantuan.

The final 72 hours culminate in a blur of sleepless nights spent knocking on every door reasonably possible and relocating dozens of posters to scattered polling stations into the wee hours. The count centre, however, is the great equaliser; Irrespective of the size of your team or the resources of your party, all are unified in our frenetic tallying, desperately huddled together to catch a glance at the ballots and sharing our resources in mutually beneficial camaraderie.

More than that, there’s a unique mixture of anticipation and relief at the knowledge that it’s all finally over, and there’s nothing more any one of us can do but watch along with everyone else.

Like many candidates at the count centre, I was joined by immediate family who, in my case, were all political novices. With the help of the other family members and volunteers of party political candidates, they were able to dive in and participate in the count. The centre was in my hometown of Magherafelt, which brought with it a comforting feeling of familiarity, and the added bonus of being able to go to my mum’s for breakfast.

I was enormously grateful to each and every person who gave me their first preference vote, but having seen the sheer volume of transfers, whereby I was receiving 2nd and 3rd preferences from right across the political spectrum, it was a point of disappointment that my early elimination meant I wouldn’t benefit from these transfers.

While I may not have had the outcome I was ultimately hoping for, I would not be put off putting myself forward to run again in the future. It was an incredibly enriching experience that provided me with a whole new perspective, not only in relation to politics but on the makeup and intricate dynamics of the community in which we share.

A parliament for all

People in Northern Ireland have a reputation for being strategic voters, and the results of the election point to a shift in political loyalties. Sinn Fein’s vote management is second-to-none, and the idea of punishing the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will no doubt have been a draw, strengthening the party’s ability to hold its 27 seats.

The shifting of voting patterns and transfers came at great expense to both the Green Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the former having lost their two MLAs including party leader Claire Bailey, and the latter having lost four MLAs, including deputy leader Nichola Mallon. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) didn’t fare well either, ultimately losing a seat instead of making any gains.

The reasons for this squeeze are varied and complex, but a common factor is almost undoubtedly the innate desire in most people to want to back the winning horse.

With 20 per cent of Northern Ireland’s MLAs now designated as ‘Other’, serious conversations need to be had over the mechanisms in Stormont that exclude this cohort; Denying 20 per cent of elected representatives their opportunity to participate in a cross-community vote simply isn’t democratic.

Research and data continue to indicate that Northern Ireland is changing at pace with a significant generational gap developing between the aspirations of today’s youth and the reservations of older demographics.

The overarching theme echoed at the doors was the sentiment that Northern politics doesn’t benefit the people. Many don’t believe it will ever work, but if we ever hope to restore faith in the political institutions, we need to remove the mechanisms that block the normal functioning of the Assembly.

That the DUP, who returned just 25 out of 90 MLAs, can block the formation of both the executive and Assembly is a disgrace, dealing a hammer blow to democracy.

Perceptions are skewed; I didn’t encounter anger or defensiveness – rather, most people were happy to open up about politics, but what sometimes does weigh heavy is the lingering fear of what others might think should they freely speak their mind.

The biggest and most inspiring takeaway in all of this has been the realisation that the dominant narrative depicting Northern Ireland as an inherently divided region could not be further from reality. The vast majority of people want less green and orange, and more delivery on the issues that really matter; healthcare, housing, and education to name but some. These issues are present in the lives of every constituent, regardless of cultural background or leaning.

With Stormont stuck in a stalemate, there has been speculation that Northern Ireland may return to the polls in winter, but such a scenario is unlikely to drastically change the outcome of the election. If I learned anything at the doors, it’s that the middle ground who want to leave the politics of the past – squarely in the past – are not the demographic that’s dwindling away.

Emma DeSouza is a citizen’s rights campaigner for the Good Friday Agreement and is Vice-Chair & NI spokesperson for VotingRights.ie. She successfully challenged the Home Office to assert her right to identify as Irish. She recently ran as an independent candidate in the Stormont elections.

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